Karel Šťastný was a 311 (Czechoslovak) Sqn pilot who was born at Hošťálková, Czechoslovakia on 3 August 1918. Pre-WW2 he was a pilot, at the rank of Kapitan, in the Czechoslovak Air Force. When the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia, on 15 March 1939, it became a German Protectorate and Slovakia became a German ‘puppet’ state. The Czechoslovak Air Force and Army was disbanded and all personnel demobilised.
Like many of his former Czechoslovak Air Force colleagues, Karel could not reconcile himself to the Munich surrender and subsequent occupation. Amongst the now demobilised former members of the Czechoslovak military, rumours were being heard that Czechoslovak military units were being formed in Poland for the purpose of fighting for the freedom of their homeland. Karel was one of many who responded to this news and investigated further. He was put in contact with the Obrana Národa [Defence of the Nation] an underground organisation formed since the German occupation in order to get military personnel to Poland.
Karel, with colleagues on their escape to Poland.
On the night of 1 August 1939, with five colleagues, Karel covertly left Czechoslovakia by illegally crossing the border into Poland, however his reception at the border was far from cordial. Poland herself was a troubled land, internally disrupted by mass Jewish emigration and gripped in tension as to her own territorial fate, such fear and suspicion magnified to an intense degree along her frontiers with Nazi Germany on the western border and Russia on the eastern border. Increasing numbers of fleeing Czechs had become an embarrassing problem for the Polish Authorities and the only sanctuary offered to them was transfer to a transit camp at Bronowice Małe, a former Polish army barracks on the outskirts of Kraków.
Czechoslovaks at Bronowice Małe, Summer 1939.
The camp was now near dereliction and now used to provide accomodation for the sudden influx of Czech fugitives. Here, Karel joined some two hundred of his fellow countrymen, all servicemen like himself, who had mistakenly assumed Poland might welcome this augmentation to its manpower. Instead, their one salvation seemed to lie in the somewhat desperate measure of enrolment into the French Foreign Legion. This possibility was first mooted by one Czechoslovak Army Officer in their midst, Lieutenant Colonel Ludvík Svoboda, who subsequently trained in Russia and was to become the first post-war President of Czechoslovakia. But the negotiations between the Czechoslovak Consulate in Kraków and his counter-part in Paris took time.
Meanwhile the sparse wooden huts at Bronowice Małe afforded little comfort, nor did the limited and fast-dwindling resources they had brought with them, permit of much escapism outwith the confines of the camp. It was a waiting game, leaving plenty of time for contemplating the future.
Escape from Poland:
During the Spring and Summer some 1200 Czechoslovak military escapees had already departed from Bronowice Małe for France, travelling from Gydnia, on the Polish Baltic coast, where between 12 May to 18 August 1939, six ship sailings had taken them to France. By the end of that August, a further 900 escapees were still at camp waiting to go to France.
The Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and the Czechoslovak escapees at Bronowice Małe had to evacuate the camp to avoid being captured. A group of 860, led by Lt/Col Svoboda departed the camp by train for Leśno, some 600km in northern Poland in an attempt to reach Gydnia and be evacuated from there. A further group of 78 Czechoslovak airmen, under the command of kapitán František Divoký, remained at the camp to collect any late escapees before they also departed from Bronowice Małe – Karel was with this latter group.
Czechoslovak escapees in transit from Bronowice Małe, Summer 1939.
The Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and on 2 days later kapitán Divoký and his group evacuated Bronowice Małe. Because of the advancing Germans, they were unable to travel directly north to Leśno and so first travelled east by train to Tarnow, 85 km away and then intended to travel north from there. However about 6km before Tarnow, the train could go no further because the track had been destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing. They continued their journey on foot to Mielka. At midday on 8 September they depart north by train to Rozwadow by train, some 400km away, but again they encountered Luftwaffe bombing which had destroyed the track and had to walk the final 20km. In view of the rapid advance of the German blitzkreig, they decided to turn South and the following day they arrived by train to Lubin, just as the Luftwaffe were bombing the city – and a further three raids by evening. By train and often by foot when the rail tracks had been destroyed by bombing – walking 50 km in a single day on 11 September – they made their way to Terebovlya, Ukraine, arriving on 16 September. That evening they continued by train to Czortkow, Ukraine.
Czechoslovak escapees enroute to Romania, September 1939.
Now clear of the Polish invasion, their plan now was to travel to Romania from where they could get to a Mediterranean port and then board a ship which would take them to France. On 17 September, they left by train for Khryplyn, Ukraine heading south to Delyatyn from where they would march to the Romanian border. The Romanian authorities, transported them to former military barracks at Pitesti. Kapitán Divoký contacted the French Consulate in Bucharest, and after their intervention, and issuing the group French passports, they were then able to able secure permission for the airmen to leave the country. On 8 November they sailed from the Romanian port of Constanta to Beirut and from there to Marseille, France. Here they were transferred to the Czechoslovak transit camp at nearby Agde. From here, the Czechoslovak airmen were transferred into l’Armée d’Air and began their training with French aircraft.
Escape from France:
The Germans invaded France on 10 May 1940 and their blitzkreig tactic, used very successfully in Poland the previous September was equally successful in France, causing the French military to having to keep evacuating Westward. Following the fall of Paris, morale crumbled, communications broke down and, with a French capitulation imminent, the Czechoslovak airmen were released from their l’Armée d’Air service so that they could make their way to England, from where they could carry on the fight. A contingent of 93, led by Major Alexander Hess withdrew to the coast at Bordeaux where they hopped to find a ship to take them to England. They were evacuated on the ‘Ary Schaeffer’, a small Dutch merchant ship, on 19 June 1940 and after a prolonged voyage far out into the Atlantic, to avoid attack by Luftwaffe aircraft, they arrived four days later at Falmouth, England.
With 311 Sqn at East Wretham:
After security checks on arrival to the UK, Karel was accepted into the RAF Volunteer Reserve on 23 July, 1940, and posted to 311 (Czechoslovak) Squadron.
Initially, the squadron was comprised of a force of only nine Vickers Wellington MkIc twin engined, bombers, each with a crew consisting of 1st and 2nd Pilots, Navigator, Wireless Operator and two Gunners. These hard-pressed aircraft were airborne almost round the clock. By day, as 1429 Czechoslovak Operational Training Unit, they served to train new aircrews, but at night-fall, duly re-fuelled and loaded with a full bomb-load, they were manned by their operational crews, on missions to destroy some enemy-held target. As new crews completed their training, so the squadron gradually increased to a dozen aircraft, but losses, as there inevitably were, presented great problems.
Vickers Wellington Mk Ic.
Escape from Wellington R1718
On the night of 16 July 1941, 311 Sqn despatched eight Wellington bombers for a raid on Hamburg, taking-off at minute intervals from 23:01. One of the aircraft, WR1718 (KX-N), was crewed by Sgt Jaroslav Nyč Captain, Sgt Karel Šťastny, co-pilot, P/O Jaroslav Zafouk,navigator, P/O Otakar Černy, wireless operator, Sgt František Knap, front-gunner and Sgt Jiří Mareš, rear-gunner took-off from East Wretham at 23:07. After taking-off no more was heard from them.
Almost from the outset of their operational tour, the crew had become acquainted with anti-aircraft fire during bombing raids, but there was none that 16th night of July, 1941 as they droned high over the Netherlands, bound for Hamburg. Without warning, the Wellington bomber was suddenly buffeted in a violent oscillation – triggered, it seemed, by an explosion under Karel’s seat.
At 00:50, they were attacked by a Me110 Luftwaffe night-fighter, flown by Leutnant Rudolf Schoenert of the 4./NJG 1, who was flying Bf 110 C-7 G9+JM from Bergen airfield, Holland. In immediate reaction, the aircrafts two pilots strained to bring the Wellington back on to a level course, until it became obvious that it could neither regain height nor be counteracted in its downward trend. The bomber’s erratic behaviour, combined with the flames now flaring into the fuselage behind, prompted Nyč to make an urgent roll-call amongst the crew.
The crew was intact, but the fire was spreading and a bomb-laden Wellington was no place to linger, so Nyč gave the command for the them to bale out. They successfully baled out, although Nyč, the pilot, was momentarily trapped by a jammed hatch, but was able to break it free and take to his parachute.
Karel had struggled out of his seat and clambered in defiance of the Wellington’s diving tilt towards the nearest means of exit. The nearest was the exit hatch, directly behind his seat, and was already open. He tried to move to its flaming outline, braced to experience his first parachute descent, but was sharply jerked to a halt by the cables of his intercom. and oxygen mask, which he had forgotten to disconnect.
Held fast by the taut flexes across his throat, which already raw from breathing acrid smoke, while the heavy Wellington gathered momentum as it plunged earthward. Summoning every last ounce of his might, he managed to disconnect the restraining cables and exited through the hatch out of the now spiralling inferno. Had the Wellington not been flying at an altitude in excess of 18,000 feet, it is virtually certain that a lesser descent of the bomber would have taken Karel with it into when it crashed into the IJsselmeer off Tacozijl, Holland.
After baling out of the stricken aircraft, Sgt Jiří Mareš landed in the Zuider Zee and was drowned and interred by the Germans at Lemmer. With that exception, none of the other crew members were seriously injured, but they held little hope of retaining their liberty, when their flaming aircraft and its subsequent crash, was certain to have aroused German occupation forces into a thorough search for survivors.
One feature of the night’s dramatic events was clearly imprinted upon Karel’s mind: that there had been no flak, he was convinced. Experience had taught him that even a close miss was invariably accompanied by the smell of gunpowder that had not been noticeable. Instead, the explosion was within the Wellington itself, directly under the Captain’s seat and Karel was never known to retract his conviction that it was the dastardly work of a saboteur.
Prisoner of War
The blazing aircraft had most certainly alerted German troops and it was only a matter of hours until tracker dogs in the charge of armed soldiers, had located every crew-member. They were taken by army truck to Amsterdam where Karel was allocated number 39287 by his captors. After interrogation, they were transferred to Stalag IXc at Bad Sulza, Germany. Karel’s next move was on 26 April 1942 when he was transferred to Stalag Luft IIID at Sagan, in Poland.
The huts were large ones with double bunks accommodating some 40 men. Conditions were harsh in the extreme. Food was appallingly inadequate, the German interpretation of a prisoner’s daily food allowance (within the terms of the Geneva Convention) amounting to a mere 1/12th of a loaf of bread (three thin slices at most), three small potatoes and a bowl of soup. Even this scanty meal was further depleted, when, at the finish of their stored season, many of the potatoes were rendered quite inedible.
Frequently and especially in hot weather, the so-called soup was rancid and could only be consumed when the nostrils were pinched together. The onset of winter lowered despondency to a new level as their under-nourished bodies strived to ward off the bitter cold. Had it not been for the weekly distribution of Red Cross parcels, the sick-list would surely have reached greater proportions. Those parcels sustained them in spirit as well as in body, providing a link with the outside world with a silent rally of hope that this limbo state would not last forever.
The parcels came, in turn, from three sources – Great Britain, Canada and the United States of America – portions being, not surprisingly, more liberal from the two American countries than those out of strictly-rationed Britain. The contents averaged a small tin of butter, cheese, tinned meat, powdered milk and dried eggs, sardines, jellies, some chocolate and forty cigarettes. A certain meat loaf seemed, even to their deprived palates, overly lacking in a reasonable meat-content and gave rise to a joked threat that, after the war, they would unitedly seek out the supplier named on each tin and shoot him as an enemy agent.
It was soon after being taken prisoner that Karel decided to grow a beard and this image he was to maintain for the duration of his captivity, except for a few occasional and brief resorts to his razor. Even then, he retained the substantial moustache, without which, he never was seen thereafter.
Stalag Luft IIID expanded, with the erection of additional huts within its confines and new arrivals swelled the roll-calls. In mid-October 1942, a truck brought in a batch, who had just been discharged from hospital care, among them, Zdeněk Sichrovský. If prisoners they must both be, then it was good that they were together, but Karel was distressed to see such change in his old friend and gradually to learn the details of the dreadful crash, which had almost cost Zdeněk both his legs.
His Wellington bomber, KX-J, T2971, piloted by Sgt Jindřich Svoboda has received a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire, after a raid on Bremen, killing his navigator and wireless operator outright and extensively burning the other crew members. They had no option but to make a forced landing at 22:36 north of Tilburg, Holland. Zdeněk himself had been thrown out of the aircraft by the impact of the crash, thus escaping burns, but not severs injuries embracing nine broken ribs a cracked skull and many excruciating and complicated bone fractures in both legs. In hospital in Tilburg, Holland, the German doctors had, in fact, recommended amputation of both legs below the knee, but, encouraged by the experienced optimism of a Dutch nursing nun, he elected instead, for the long and painful treatment by surgery, plaster casts and traction. It had taken nine months to patch him up and the suffering endured was clearly evident as he painfully struggled to regain his ability to walk.
Stalag Luft I, Barth.
Stalag Luft I – Barth
On 16 October 1942, only a few days after Sichrovský’s arrival, the entire camp was transferred by railway cattle trucks, to Stalag Luft I, at Barth, on the Baltic coast of Germany. It was a much smaller compound, with smaller huts, each divided into three rooms. A room held three bunk beds, a stove, a table and 2 benches as well as a cupboard in which, they stored the combined contents of their food parcels. They had discovered that it was advantageous to pool the food items and had nominated Sichrovský their chef, he having proved himself the most competent cook amongst them, capable of serving some remarkably palatable snacks from even this, very limited, larder.
Another useful accomplishment, was Sichrovský’s skill in watch repairing. No doubt in consideration of his physical incapacity, permission was granted for him to receive two boxes of watch parts from the Red Cross in Geneva. Karel made a small lathe for him and they were in business.
Most of the prisoners engaged in some pursuit; some painted pictures whilst others developed an interest in metalwork. For this, they saved up the foil wrapping within cigarette packets, smelted it down into a base metal and from this, all manner of objects were, with considerable artistry, created. Such was the wealth of talent in and support for, this particular craft, that an impressive exhibition was eventually staged, the array somewhat dominated by a grotesque death-mask of none other than Sichrovský.
This outward show of resignation to their plight, was a concealment of a further hive of industry, namely the assembly of contributions towards escape projects. German uniforms were duplicated, after painstaking unpicking of British ones, each piece then carefully pressed and re-fashioned, using the reverse side of the fabric, thus effecting a close resemblance to the material worn by a German soldier. Metal buttons were cast from plaster moulds. Papers were stolen, ‘borrowed’ or bartered and the temporary ‘loan’ of a typewriter allowed moulds of all type-face to be taken, for subsequent compilation into the rubber stamps, so imperative for authenticity in identity and travel documents.
Stalag Luft III, Sagan.
First PoW Escape:
It was one matter to prepare for escapes but another to survive the manifold hazards which undoubtedly lurked in the alien territory beyond camp. That much, Karel had, to his chagrin, learned when he made his first bid for freedom in the summer of 1942, out of Stalag Luft III-D.
Under cover of darkness, he and another prisoner had accomplished an undetected exit, after cutting their way through the double perimeter wire fences. Not until many miles separated the from the camp did they slacken their pace, having navigated themselves to a predetermined railway.
Momentarily, they lay amid shrubbery on the embankment, to regain their breath and decide in which direction might lie the nearest signals, where a train might have cause to slow down. A goods train did just that and once hidden beneath the tarpaulin cover of a wagon, they allowed themselves a small measure of congratulatory elation that they had made it and were speeding in the direction of Czechoslovakia.
Fate however, was to deal a unkind hand. After some time the train’s erratic shunting behaviour and a prolonged halt tempted Karel to risk a careful survey of their whereabouts and to his consternation, he saw that they had been shunted into the loading yard of what was surely, a German munitions factory. Here security was maximum – not only was the yard brightly illuminated beneath its blacked-out roof, but sectional walls were topped with barbed wire and amongst the small army of workers already unloading the train, he could discern numerous armed guards. By comparison, escape from Stalag Luft IIID had been relatively simple and there could be no unobserved retreat from this secure area.
2nd PoW Escape:
Karel, with other Czechoslovak Prisoner of War, at Stalag Luft I.
The severity of a German winter, with its snows and extreme cold was a formidable deterrent to further escape speculation. Karel recognised only too well, the rigours’s of life on the run and the greatly reduced chances of success, in inclement weather conditions. In any case, he had to await Spring to avail himself of the particular means by which he hoped to quit Barth Camp.
Among the inmates of Stalag Luft 1 was a percentage of civilian refugees of Russian extraction – non-combatants whom war had buffeted into a slave labour situation here at Barth, their days spent in wearisome agricultural toil whenever weather allowed, in return for one unappetising and barely sufficient meal, at the end of each day.
The opportunity of escape, by changing places with one of these refugees, was an obvious one, but fraught with the danger of recognition by a guard or even betrayal. Karel waited and watched, before making his choice of a likely co-operator, meanwhile hoarding his own Red Cross parcels, to the sacrifice of any complementary meals. One morning in early Summer, he hurriedly relinquished his bribe and donned the clothes of a field- worker, taking his place in their sullen ranks, tense and expectant that the ruse would fail. But it succeeded and from the open fields he edged gradually to the cover of nearby shrubbery and ultimate woods.
He deemed it imperitive that he remain isolated from civilisation and essential, therefore, that he travel only by night. In his present refugee clothing he lacked the protection afforded by his uniform should he apprehended and could be shot as
a spy. A second day passed in hiding, the hunger pangs which plagued him barely relieved by gnawing on a few raw potatoes gleaned from a field.
The stars guided. his north-easterly route towards Czechoslovakia. Some fugitives from PoW camps opted for a route to Yugoslavia and and many did, in fact, reach that country to fight again with the partisans. But Karel pressed steadfastly homewards, each 24 hours of freedom setting the seal on success. His diet remained raw vegetables, potatoes or turnips mostly, but drought conditions roused the more pressing torment of thirst. He would not permit himself to venture near farms where there might be water troughs or barrels – such places also had people and worse, vigilant dogs.
In his third week of freedom he was crazed by thirst, until mercifully a ground mist formed one dawn and he lay on the moist grass greedily sucking the droplets of dew. As his panting gradually abated unbelievable sound reached his ears the tantalising gurgling of water – and soon he was floundering in the shallow depths of a vastly evaporated river bed. With his thirst satisfied, and aglow from the cold dousing, his spirits rose as he lay in a hiding place re-assessing his chances.
It was his 17th day of freedom – surely he was rid of the pursuing search-parties which had undoubtedly been sent forth after him from Barth. His reckoning told him he might well be within one more night’s trail of the border. Surely thus refreshed and spurred by this anticipation he would cross into his homeland before another dawn. In this state of reassurance he discreetly spread his clothes to dry in the heat of the day while he drifted on into an oblivion interspersed with dreams of home-coming.
The sun was in its zenith when Karel was startled back to consciousness by the proximity of two dogs sniffing around him. Beyond them, with steady gait, the figure of a man approached, a broken shot-gun resting easily in the crook of his right arm. Karel scrambled to his feet, but the man made no move to cock his gun and was still very much in charge of the obedient hounds.
As he questioned Karel, his accent revealed him to be a Czech, and an apparently innocent gamekeeper engaged on his daily patrol. Karel felt himself weakening with relief, yet could not dispel a nagging mistrust of the shelter offered and promise of subsequent assistance in a clandestine crossing of the border, which, as he had calculated, was but a few miles distant. How prudent was his instinct, for even before they cleared the spinny a dozen and more German soldiers ran to meet them and Karel realised that his discovery had actually taken place earlier, either as he slept on or perhaps he had been spotted as he bathed in the stream. It was just too coincidental, to suppose that a truck-load of armed soldiers had been passing. Feelings of disappointment over this 11th hour disintegration of all his endeavours and dejection at the prospect of further captivity, took time to develop in him.
For the moment, his whole being was consumed by a loathsome contempt for the fellow-countryman who, so readily, had abused his trust and stooped to betrayal. Karel managed to convey his disgust for the traitor, before rough hands were laid upon him and brutal blows rained upon his face and head, from the rifle butts of his captors. Thus ended his 17-day liberty – further misery and deprivation awaiting him in a dank, lone cell back in Barth.
His prolonged absence had, understandably, encouraged an assumption of his success, among the inmates of Stalag Luft I. His re-appearance, after such an interval, therefore had a decidely shattering effect on the few onlookers who witnessed his return. Not only did the revelation of his failure depress them, but they were deeply shocked to note the battered face that rendered him barely recognisable.
Four weeks in solitary confinement was the customary punishment for re-captured escapees. Karel knew only too well, from memories of Sagan, what was in store for him. It meant survival on the most meagre amount of swill to keep him at subsistence level and no more. And again, he found himself glad to gnaw on fragments of coal, in a vain attempt to stave off the gripes of overwhelming hunger his sole comfort being the few crusts tossed through his window in sympathetic token, by a band of prisoners led by Sichrovský. But, with grit, he withstood this destitution and the long month ended at last.
Third PoW Escape:
Incredibly, Karel was not defeated by the two unsuccessful escapes, for indeed, failures they had not been, both beset by cruel and unexpected twists of fate.
He was determined to try again and preparations were put in hand. For months he hoarded and bartered chocolate bars, to fill the little attache case which was to be an essential accessory to the role he contrived, namely that of a civilian worker. It was getting on for Winter, but he planned to travel by train as far as possible, thus trusting that the somewhat shabby trousers, jacket, cap and scarf procured for him would suffice. Finally, the forged papers and a small amount of money were available and he was ready to go.
His secret plan was confirmed to the few friends whose assistance he needed to help smuggle his disguise to the ablutions block, where, after the other prisoners had showered and departed, Karel remained in hiding, to wait out the tense hours until darkness descended. He then made his way toward the double fences, carefully timing each spurt between the sweep of the searchlight, cut a small hole through the fence and then further to gain cover of the scrub, some distance beyond. Momentarily he thought “so far so good” and permitted himself to wonder how long might his freedom last this time, before grimly pressing on into the night.
It seemed suddenly strange to walk along a proper tarmac road. He tried to adopt an air of nonchalance through the outskirts and into the town, which was now wakening for the day’s business. He had breakfasted on some chocolate, which only served to confirm his fear that such a diet was going to prove monotonous, if not downright sickening. Still, this independent food supply obviated the risk involved in contact with shopkeepers, cafes and even the ubiquitous German militia nor did he have money to spend on ought but travel. As it was, his meagre resources would hardly get him far and he might well have to resort to less than honest tactics, to cover the considerable distance he intended. He would exercise maximum caution until he gauged the risks and he noted, with relief, that his guise did. not seem to arouse any undue attention.
It was not his dress which gave him away, but a simple irregularity in his papers. From time to time, the German Authorities introduced additional or re-styled endorsement stamps to up-date passes, in an effort to tighten the net cast to catch deserters and other fugitives. Unfortunately, Barth’s Escape Comittee had not been acquainted with the latest of these alterations and the discrepancy came to light when Karel chanced to be selected by a railway Policeman during a random document inspection. It was at the barrier as an anxious crowd jostled to pass through to the waiting train. A foul stroke of luck it was for him to be one of those waylaid, just as it was a crushing blow to be thus intercepted in Sudetenland, so close to Czechoslovakia and safety.
Examination of his attache case only condemned him further and he was transferred into Civil Police custody, incarcerated in a cell beneath the Police Station, for several days while they verified his true identity. During this detention the only food he received was bitter, raw, salt fish while all liquids were denied.
From this private hell, he was almost glad that on 3 November 1943, to be sent to Oflag IV-B, at Mühlberg, some 30 miles North of Dresden, Germany. Holding some 30,000 prisoners from 33 different countries, it was the largest prisoner-of-war camps in Germany during World War II – in reputation, second only to the infamous Colditz. There Karel was to experience his third term of the injustices of solitary confinement.
A new year dawned, bringing with it an abundance of rumours for the prisoners’ speculation. News filtered into the camp of successive Allied victories and the increasing certainty that Germany was on the brink of defeat. It was 1945 and a March morning brought dramatic confirmation of these stories, when the entire camp seemed to erupt in a fever of activity. Since daybreak lorries had been trundling out of the gates and soon the prisoners were urgently aligned and marched out, under escort, soon to overtake streams of fleeing civilians. Everyone and everything moved in an easterly direction – the rout was on.
As far as the eye could see the road ahead was clogged, but gradually the Army lorries hooted a passage through, taking all food supplies with them. Many of the prisoners were already under-nourished and weakened visibly under the demands of such unrelenting physical exertion, without sustenance. Hunger pangs attacked Karel too but he was not slow to recognise a potential meal when a cat happened along. Without hesitation he wrung its neck, skinned and dressed it, to provide a meal surely to be tolerated by none but the utterly desperate.
Fitful sleep was snatched by the roadside and another daybreak saw them force themselves into a reluctant resumption of the gruelling trek.
Mid-morning brought an unexpected jolt from their torpid nightmare, when, out of the sky behind them roared a single-file formation of fighter ‘planes, each in turn, swooping low over the straggling column and strafing its length – the machine gun fire scattering the dazed pedestrians into the ditches on either side. When Karel sensed their passing he raised his head and clearly saw the insignia on the last aircraft – ironically the star of the United States Army Air Force. Threat, though these undoubtedly brought, their presence was nonetheless reassuring, for it promised the close proximity of Allied Forces. And rescue was indeed at hand, when, soon after American ground forces caught up and took them into welcome care.
The end of hostilities in Europe did not take place for a further seven weeks, but for Karel, the war ended that April day.
He underwent several postings; from a Prisoner Release Centre he moved on, in mid-May to the Czechoslovak Depot at Cosford; two months later, he joined a Group Pool and finally from RAF Manston, in Kent, England, he took his farewell of the Royal Air Force under repatriation to Czechoslovakia, just two days before Japan too, capitulated.
Escape from Czechoslovakia:
On return to Czechoslovakia, he remained in the Czechoslovak Air Force, but following the Communist take-over in February 1948, those who had served with the Allies in the West during WW2, were systematically dismissed from the Czechoslovak military and then persecuted by the State Security Service with many being imprisoned. This resulted in many of the former Czechoslovak RAF personnel to escape and go into exile again in the West.
In Karel’s case, he was dismissed from Czechoslovak Air Force in March 1948, but managed to escape to the West, with 21 others in a DC3 aircraft on 14/07/48 from Prague Kbely and flying Manston, England.
About 03:30 on 14 June 1948 a Dakota DC3 [C47], with serial no 43-48406, and Czechoslovak Air Force markings, landed at RAF Manston, Kent England. On board were 17 men of military age, two women and two boys, of 14 and 8. All of whom were Czechoslovaks. For security reasons, and to protect their families who were still in Czechoslovakia, they declined to give any details about themselves or details of the escape to the media.
The aircraft had been ‘borrowed’ from the Air Transport Regiment – Letecký dopravní pluk – from the Prague Kbely airbase in Czechoslovakia. It was late evening, Sunday 13 June. The escape group arrived at the airfield in nine separate taxi’s, from nearby Prague. Under cover of darkness the escape group of people approached the airfields perimeter fence. They were met there by a pair of security guards, named Kvapil and Koudela who were on patrol guarding the airfield. The meeting had been pre-arranged as they were going to assist with the escape. They cut a hole in the fence and the group entered the airfield.
During the afternoon of Sunday 13 June 1948, Vlastimíl Prášek, had been working on a DC3 aircraft, had its tanks filled with fuel. When he finished working on the aircraft he left it parked outside the hanger looking as if maintenance work would be continuing in the following morning.
The escape group went to where their ‘escape’ DC3 had been parked and found they had a major problem – a second DC3 had been parked in front of ‘their’ aircraft blocking its route to the grass airstrip. The aircrew, who were due to fly the escape aircraft, had a quick emergency discussion and decided that it was now too late to abort the escape attempt and they would have to use the second DC3 instead. To move it first, so that they could use their correct ‘escape’ DC3 would have alerted the airfield’. Discreetly, the escape group boarded the aircraft, the crew started the engines – one of which was reluctant to start – and immediately took-off heading East towards Horni Pocernice, a few kilometers East of Prague. Take-off was about 01:00. The pilot was Josef Bernat, ex-311 S/Ldr and pilot, Hugo Hrbáček, ex-310 S/Ldr and pilot, and Karel Šťastný ex-311 W/O and pilot. They had been serving officers in the Czechoslovak Air Force prior to their dismisal folowing the Communist take-over that March.
Amongst the other men on board, were Zdeněk Sichrovský ex-311 W/O fitter, Vlastimíl Prášek, ex-311 W/O fitter IIe, Karel Kanda, ex-312 Sgt fitter IIe, and two other ex-RAF and another man Alois Liška who had been a Division General in the Czechoslovak Army in England during WW2. Other passengers also included Karel Šťastný’s brother with his wife and two sons.
Approaching Horni Pocernice, Bernat changed course to fly West towards Cheb and then towards the American Zone of Germany. Fortunately it was a cloudy night. Whilst flying over Czechoslovak territory they maintained radio silence and all aboard kept watch for Russian fighter aircraft who were known to be looking for them. Once they had crossed into the American Zone, Bernat continued to flying West, making full use of the cloud cover as the fighters were still searching for them but, running short of fuel, they finally gave up and returned back to Czechoslovakia.
Bernat now set course for England. As they were still over the English Channel the aircraft’s fuel gauges showed empty. The aircraft touched down at Manston at about 03:30 as the aircraft had touched down on the runway, the engines cut out as the fuel tanks were empty.
This escape caused considerable upset to the Czechoslovak Communist authorities. The aircraft they had taken had been the allocated for usage by the Czechoslovak President, Klement Gottwald on his state duties and had just returned, with him, from Bratislava late that evening.
All 21 of the escape group were tried in absentia to high treason. The British newspapers had a very different reaction saying that as most of those on board had served in the RAF in WW2 it was ‘the Royal Air Force returns to England’.
The Czechoslovak government demanded the return of the aircraft. After three months of negotiations the aircraft was returned to Czechoslovakia – along with a bill for the repairs and maintenace for its stay at Manston.
On his return to England, Karel was able to rejoin the RAF. By January 1958 he was serving as a flying instructor with the Maritime Operational Training Unit, based at Forres-Kinloss RAF Station. On the night of 10 January 1958, he was an instructor to Fg/Off N Emsden for a night training flight in Avro Shackleton T4, VP259. The aircraft was flying night-time approaches at RAF Kinloss. During one of the circuits the Shackleton flew the pattern too high.
At a cloud height of 900 ft, the Shackletony flew into Haldon Hill, which was obscured by low clouds and hit trees at 800 ft and then crashed into terrain at 760ft and caught fire. Karel and Nemsden were killed and four crew members were injured.
Karel was interred at the military section at Kinloss Abbey Burial Ground and is commemorated on panel 115 of the Armed Forces Memorial at National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas, Staffordshire, UK.